What can our awareness of the immediate present gain from the study of old visual art? At this time, when we need all of the help we can get, that hard question deserves discussion. To represent the world is to understand it, and to understand it might, hopefully, help cope with disaster. And so right now an art historical perspective may be useful.
In pre-modern Europe, very serious bacterial plagues were sadly regular. Thanks to medical ignorance, poor sanitation, and international trade, they spread swiftly, and all too regularly killed many people. These dramatic changes to everyday life found responses in literary and visual art. Boccaccio’s Decameron (1353) presents stories told by women and men who, isolating themselves, take refuge from the Black Death. That plague also greatly affected Italian painting. Anyone lucky enough to survive understood images of hell differently.
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) never depicted contemporary events in his history paintings, but his “The Plague at Ashdod” (1630) draws upon awareness of a contemporary plague in Milan. His announced subject, however, is the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament (I Samuel 5:1-6):
After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they [. . .] carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place.
But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.
The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors.
The theft of an ark by the Philistines thus brings about a plague.
Poussin was famously erudite. His architectural setting comes from a Renaissance set for tragic theater; there are quotations from Renaissance painting and allusions to Latin literature. In the foreground and the right of “Ashdod,” we see the plague deaths. Just left of center, men gaze up at the ark, which is on the far left, in the temple. And just below a relief sculpture carved into the foot of that temple, we see rats, the agents transmitting the disease, scurrying about.
Certainly this scene is grim, but I think it is in fact too refined, too literary, or, if you will, too aesthetic a picture to convey any sense of real menace. No doubt its setting — a geographically and historically distant site — contributes to that effect. But so do the references to earlier pictorial and literary art.
Look at the figure of the foreshortened dead woman at the very center. Or consider the detail at the right foreground: a child too young to understand the disaster, guided by a man shielding his nose against the stench. This image, with its marvelously composed elements, is manifestly a work of art, not a documentary scene.
In general, major pre-modern artists did not depict contemporary disasters in large history paintings. One exception, however, is Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675), whose “Market Square, the Plague of Naples” (1656), depicted the epidemic that killed more than half the population of Naples, then the largest city in Italy.
(Gargiulo also painted two other disasters in that city: a major eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1631, and the revolt of 1647 led by Masaniello, a poor fisherman. Because Masaniello was a plebeian, he could not be portrayed as a heroic figure in a history painting; therefore his rebellion was treated like a natural disaster.)
Largo Mercatello, now renamed Piazza Dante, is a large market square. In the back we see a city wall, which was demolished when this area was rebuilt in the mid-18th century. The dead are being buried just outside of the city. Our vantage point, a bird’s-eye view, is much further away from the figures than in “Plague at Ashdod,” and the dead are heaped in piles, with no one in charge.
Where Poussin’s figures act, as it were, in an art historical performance of a tragedy, here there is real chaos. This scene of mass burial is terrifying, but in the heavens above Vesuvius, which is to the East, is God the Father, who notwithstanding the plea of a kneeling Jesus, has yet to intervene.
When in 1799 Napoleon invaded the Middle East, his troops fell victim to the bubonic plague. “Bonaparte Visits the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa” (1804) by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) shows the emperor bravely touching his ill soldier, making the gesture traditionally used by French kings to cure sufferers from scrofula.
The true theme thus is not so much the suffering of the French soldiers as the heroism of Napoleon. The magnificently dressed emperor doesn’t hesitate in his merciful gesture, while the officer accompanying him recoils. Stories circulated that after his expedition failed, Napoleon abandoned the troops. Gros, a pupil of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), was commissioned to paint this propaganda picture, which was shown in the Salon.
Like the pre-modern plagues, coronavirus is an international public health disaster that not only kills many people, but also radically disrupts everyday life even as attempts are made to stop its spread. And yet, I am deeply unsure whether a contemporary painting can be an adequate response. I doubt that a picture of the fatal Chinese wet market or of security lines at international airports could be an even remotely adequate embodiment of the tragedy.
Showing deaths in a beautiful composition, as Poussin does, seems all but inconceivable in present-day public art if it is to be convincing. And an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping inspecting the emergency workers in Wuhan, or of President Trump consoling the virus victims in a hospital would be hard to bring off. So, too would a Poussin-esque allegory treating the spread of coronavirus as a punishment from God.
Nothing could be more disordered than a plague scene, in which the customary social orders break down. But in each of these three very different pictures there is a powerful ordering principle, whether visible or hidden. In the Poussin, God causes the plague; in the Gargiulo, God presides above the chaos, withholding his power even as the horrors unfold; and in Gros’s painting, Napoleon is the invincible leader, like some medieval saint.
When such an ordering principle is absent, as is the case today how can a conscientious contemporary painter proceed? I have no answer to that question. Part of the problem here is that the scale of present-day disasters, whether natural or man-made, is unparalleled. That this disaster is unpicturable may make it more terrifying.
Nowadays we demand that representations of contemporary events be truthful. And theocratic images like Gargiulo’s, ever since the advent of modernism, have become impossible to convincingly paint. Photography and film are now our privileged means of representing contemporary reality. Could the concerns of Old Master history painting be taken up by visual artists making use of new media? This is too large a subject to consider properly in this essay. (A recent book, What Was History Painting and What Is It Now? — edited by Mark Salber Phillips and Jordan Bear, published last year by McGill-Queen’s University Press — presents some contemporary examples.)
The curious thing is that, when such upheaval occurs, thoughts still turn to the social role of painting — a pivot that seems to tap into a longing for emotional depth and symbolic range that only painting, enriched by the layers upon layers of its own history, can deliver.
Note: Sources and related readings for this essay include Pierre Rosenberg, Nicolas Poussin: 1594-1665 (France Loisirs, 1994); Annamaria Testaverde Matteini, Micco Spadaro: Napoli ai tempi di Masaniello (Elemond-Electa, 2002): 150-1; Mark Salber Phillips and Jordan Bear (eds.), What Was History Painting and What Is It Now? (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019).